The Sunday TimesPlus

18th May 1997



When the Bard rocked and rolled on the boards

By Afdhel Aziz

After all the hype about Feroze Kamardeen’s "Julius Caesar", I finally settled into my seat at the Lionel Wendt to see the whole shebang in action. The opening is a powerful montage of famous leaders who have been gunned down by the assassin’s bullet - focusing primarily on three Americans, JFK Jr, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Good use was made of footage from the Oliver Stone movie " JFK" and Spike Lee’s "Malcolm X" which was intercut seamlessly with the real life documentary film of King’s march on Alabama and the "I have a dream speech". We then meet a newscaster (Michelle Perera) from the fictional Global News Network, which is broadcasting a documentary about the death of Julius Caesar, replaying in detail the events before and after his death.

The play does bear strong resonances for us Sri Lankans, with its many resemblances to divisive issues in our own land - fatal violence, long a hallmark of Sri Lankan politics, the dangerous concentration of power in one position, even the tendency towards media manipulation. Caesar (Jerome de Silva) falls prey to the geopolitical realities of government - a country at war needs a strong leader at its helm, a Churchillian demagogue of almost tyrannical tendencies. Once the war is over, what the country needs is a democrat, a compromiser, a dealmaker; an uncompromising, charismatic leader needs to be dumped as soon as possible lest he falls prey to apostatic desires. The lack of female characters in the play was addressed by the changing around of a few identities. The changing of the senator Decius Brutus to the female gender (Juanita Beling) also added a new dimension - she seduces and flatters Caesar into coming to the senate on the fateful day, with hints of a past relationship coming through all the time. Caesar falls for her charms, and turns his vituperative scorn on his wife, rejecting her request that he stay at home.

John Benedict as Brutus was a revelation. While his tanned biceps drew admiring looks from the ladies, the masterful control of the emotions on his face communicated wonderfully the uneasy turmoil raging inside his psyche as his noble love for the good of Rome conflicted with the fraternal love he had for Caesar. His was the stormtrooper of the future, at ease with an automatic weapon, or a laptop computer. The love scene with his wife Portia (Amenthi Jayasinghe) was full of pathos. Jehan Aloysious as Caius Cassius dances an evil tango, his fedora tilted across his face to hide the eyes of an anarchist. But he leaves some doubt as to whether we are to loathe him for his Machiavellian manipulations - or hail him as a saviour of his country. A tantalising dual identity.

Mark Anthony ( Dilan Perera) is a chainsmoking realist, a man who loved Caesar but also realises that in the sharkpit that is Rome after his death, he has to be the biggest or sleep with the fishes. He is a sharp media strategist, milking every last public relations drop out of Caesar’s death and later on, that of Brutus - a camera crew on hand to relay his every word via satellite to the planet. In one brilliant stroke, Mark Anthony reads the opening of the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech in an apathetic voice- Caius Cassius has just handed him the prepared, censored, official version moments before. When the crowd boo his listlessness, he angrily crumples up the speech and launches into a vehement call to arms, winning the crowd over with his fiery rhetoric. When they respond, you can almost see his nostrils flare at the scent of power.

The technology which gave this production its distinctive feel also deserves a special round of applause for cutting edge visual design and sheer slackness. The opening sequence featured a wholly believable state of the art, MTV - esque breakdown of the fictional city state of Rome, complete with satellite maps and statistics. When the soothsayers message comes, it is in the form of a computer image, a Kali, a messenger of death and harbinger of doom, with burnt out eye sockets and a cyclopean eye ensconced in her mouth. The visual effects used to show the way Caesar’s motorcade was destroyed however were pretty weak and unconvincing. The long arm of Bill Gates stretches even into the Lionel Wendt with the omnipresent Windows mail logo bearing warnings and bad tidings. Cellular phones aboun ded though thankfully no one tried to plug Celltel, the generous sponsors of the entire production. One instance when the gimmickry of the play completely underwhelmed me was when a "Miss Saigon" type helicopter drops out of the skies, its searchlight raking the crowds before - completely unnecessary. Another mistake was the fiesta street scene which opens the production, accompanied by the music of the Gypsy Kings - in contrast to the militaristic stripped down feel of the rest.

Kamardeen displays a good command of the mis on scene, throwing away the wing curtains to open up the Wendt stage to its maximum potential and leaving its battleship grey walls open to our gaze. The backdrop was a simple white screen which he used for all the graphics and television footage. When not in use, the multi layered set was used together with effective lighting to give a stark, minimalist look which contrasted strongly with all the bells and whistles of the graphics. As a director he has matured a lot perhaps not acting in the play this time allowed him to step back and get some perspective on his work. Sure there was that trademark gung ho, big-boys-at-play style with all the Heckler and Kock paintguns and army fatigues. But, especially in the second half of the play, when all the whizzbang technology was placed to a side, he proved he could create a moving, striking beast of a play without any of it at all. Just actors on a stage acting - nothing else.

He was helped by judicious editing of the entire script which enabled the dialogue to have an almost conversational tone, in keeping with the contemporary feel of the entire thing, Masterful touches abounded - for instance, when the ravaging hordes of Roman citizens scamper around the city, lit only by the flame of a cigarette lit by a self-satisfied Mark Anthony. Just as he lights the tobacco, he has lit up the passions of Rome. Majestic Nuremberg-style ceiling to floor banners unfurl with an ecclesiastical flourish to the words "Is this man to become a god?"

The main flaw in the entire production was the inaudibility of the dialogue. Kamardeen once again made the bad decision to slather background music over almost every possible scene, which he also did in "Macbeth". The problems this caused were many. Background music is a cinematic effect which is usually tailormade by the soundtrack composer to fit each scene perfectly. Trying to match the flow of dialogue to music made for another purpose leads to peaks and valleys when the actor’s mood does not match that of the music. Particularly cheesy was the music that heralded the love scene between Brutus and his wife, which had overtones of an episode of "The Bold and the Beautiful".

Another problem is that the sheer percussive, Dolby Stereo, Bose speaker force of the music used contrasts wildly with the actor’s voices on-stage which at times were completely inaudible - especially when they were facing away from the audience. Unfortunately, clip on microphones were only used in certain key scenes during the play, like during Mark Anthony’s funeral oratorio-at other points everyone had to strain to hear what was being said. For a production this technology intensive this was a grievous oversight. But all in all, Kamardeen and the Stagelight and Magic posse have created yet another rock’n roll, no holds barred ShakespeareORama. For those of you who are wondering what he is going to do next, when I met him last he gave me that broad grin of his and said "I’m going to do "Hamlet" in a spaceship. Heaven help us all........

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